The State Theatre Company of South Australia’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a gender tour de force. Of the fourteen principal contributors on the night, only two are men. However, while the play is about women and the issues they face to call it a woman’s play (in the manner of a “chick flick”) would unjustly diminish the inherent power of the work.
A non-linear play set in early 1980’s Britain it traces the life and career of Marlene as she has just been promoted to head up the job network she’s employed in.
The renown opening sequence – a surrealist dinner party hosted by Marlene and attended by famous female figures of history is enhanced by the idiosyncratic entries of the Isabella Bird and Dull Gret characters with Pope Joan’s entry especially memorable. The opening is a true ensemble effort where no actor out-shines another although Sally Hildyard’s presence as Gret (with her scripted monosyllabic grunts) is butch enough to scare any man (or woman) back to the comfort of his or her infantile pacifier.
The set, designed by Mary Moore, is stark and efficient. It conveys a simple ruthlessness while suggesting something more than a glass ceiling has been broken. In turn, Mark Pennington’s lighting is equally stark but he does successfully employ subtleties to accentuate the changing emotions on stage.
Catherine Oates as composer is effectual and adds some warmth and, at times, a sense of the celebration as well as the conflict of the 1980’s.
If Director Catherine Fitzgerald isn’t Churchill’s soul mate then she should be. Fitzgerald’s handling of this work is sublime. The opening scene in particular could easily descend into a muddled mess with its poignant overlapping dialogue and Pinter-esque silence. In Fitzgerald’s hands that dialogue concentrates the audience’s attention rather than dissipates it and that lingering silence forces the audience to reflect on the notions played out in front of them rather than simply feel the menace.
While the number of actors on stage dwindles as the drama unfolds there is no genuine standout player. Ulli Birvé as Marlene, Eileen Darley as Isabella Bird/Joyce/Mrs. Kidd, Antje Guenther as Pope Joan/Angie, Sally Hildyard as Dull Gret/Louise, Carissa Lee as The Waitress/Kit/Shona, Ksenja Logos as Patient Griselda/Nell/Jeanine and Lia Reutens as Lady Nijo/Win – all contribute intensely professional performances.
Simon Stollery, the accent coach, pulls off a minor miracle with multiple accents on show from entirely different eras, but again it’s an indication of the talented cast that they’re able to manage and sustain those changes with each role.
Top Girls explores the barriers to and consequences of success and failure for women and women’s liberation in our shared society and that is what holds the audience’s interest, not the structure or the style.
Politically, Churchill leaves us with the understanding that no matter how much love is given to a Tory, or how much labour is sacrificed for a Tory or how much truth is thrown at a Tory, Tories are simply unable to cope with anything meaningful beyond themselves.
Ultimately Top Girls is all about gender but effectively it’s also about much, much more.